Thursday, April 12, 2012

Eventing In Aiken | 4/12/2012

How it Started

By Pam Gleason

 Aiken’s winter season is ideal for eventers who want to do a lot of competing. This year, in the space of just eight weeks, there are eight recognized events (counting Pine Top in nearby Thompson, Ga.) and 15 unrecognized ones (counting two-phases and jumping derbies.) These events attract hundreds of horses and riders from up and down the Eastern seaboard. They come to train, to compete, and to be surrounded by some of the best in the business. Over the last fifteen years, Aiken has become a magnet for American event riders in the winter season.

There are many reasons why Aiken is so popular every winter. The reason almost everyone mentions is the footing. Aiken’s sandy soil is easy on hooves, provides great traction and has exceptional drainage. It has drawn horsemen to this area since the late 1890s. Then there is the weather – warm sunny days, cool nights; the ground never freezes, and it always feels like spring by early February. Then there is the existence of the events themselves and the community of eventers here: like attracts like, and what aspiring or established rider wouldn’t want to be competing alongside the top names in the sport?

Eventing is firmly established here now, but it is actually a fairly late arrival in Aiken. The first combined test was held on the Powderhouse Polo Field in 1981. Then in 1987, there was a combined test called Sporting Days in Aiken at the Ramblewood show grounds. After that, eventing was on a slow roll forward, which accelerated rapidly after the 1996 Olympics were awarded to Atlanta and the Australian Olympic event team came to town to train. Although Aiken has been called the Horse Capital of the South since the 1920s, eventing didn’t gain a foothold here until a good decade or two after the sport had become popular in other horsy parts of the country.

Fertile Ground

Although eventing didn’t make it to Aiken until the 1980s, there was a long equestrian tradition that paved the way for the sport. The predecessors of today’s event riders were the amateur steeplechase jockeys who spent their winters here in the days of the Winter Colony. Aiken had a population of winter “tourists” starting in the 1860s, but the height of the sporting Winter Colony was from around 1916 until World War II. Over those decades, equestrian culture was the driving force in the city and the Hitchcock Woods (then simply the Woods, and much larger than it is today) was at its heart.
The Woods were the site of the Aiken Drag (now the Aiken Hounds), which was a fast and furious hunt over very large fences. In the 1920s and 1930s, many of these fences were five to five and half feet high. First flight, led by the master, Louise Hitchcock, was flat out. It included about a dozen steeplechase riders: Pete Bostwick, Temple Gwathmey, Rigan McKinney, Crompton Smith. Thomas Hitchcock (Louise Hitchcock’s husband) was the leading steeplechase trainer in the country in the 1920s and he used the Woods as his training ground. He exercised his horses all over the Woods, but especially on the Ridge Mile Track, which was set up as a steeplechasing course. After World War II, most people interested in steeplechasing began to winter in Camden rather than Aiken, but the tradition of fast riding and fearless jumping continued with the Aiken Hounds.

“It was a Thoroughbred Mecca,” says Joannah Hall Glass, who first started coming to Aiken in the 1960s. “All the famous trainers were down here. Polo was also going on. On Sunday, there was nothing to do besides watch polo, and so we all did.”

Then came the era of the racehorse. Back in the days of the Winter Colony, there were racehorses in Aiken, but they were not a dominant force in equestrian culture. After World War II, many of the most important racehorse training operations were in Aiken for the winter. The annual Aiken Trials, started in 1942, were once a much bigger and more glamorous affair than it is today. Now, there are four or five races for untried 2-year-olds, with one race for successful racehorses that might attract a handful of runners from small tracks. The jockeys are generally Aiken’s exercise riders. From the 1940s into the 1960s, there might be a full day of racing, and some of the horses were already champions on their way to greater things – young 3-yearolds on the Kentucky Derby trail, for instance. The jockeys might be the top riders in the nation, and scouts from the Daily Racing Form were always present to get an early look at top contenders for America’s most prestigious contests.

By the middle 1970s, there was a series of horse shows at the Ramblewood show ground, which was between Banks Mill and Whiskey on Citadel Road. Ramblewood had A rated hunter shows, which attracted riders from around the region. A little later, it also had dressage shows.

Eventing Arrives

Joannah Glass was one of the organizers of Aiken’s first combined test, held on March 23, 1981. Joannah, who lived most of the year in Berwyn, Penn., was immersed in the eventing world of the mid-Atlantic. She herself evented, taught eventing, trained and showed hunters, and organized horse trials in Radnor Hunt country. She made regular trips to Aiken every winter, where she had a home on Coker Spring Road.
At Aiken's first three-day at Ramblewood
At that time, there were some other people in Aiken who were very involved in eventing. One was Iris Winthrop Freeman, who, along with her siblings, was a major force in American eventing, creating the Groton House Horse Trials in Massachusetts, among other things. Iris is married to Mike Freeman, who is a Hall of Fame racehorse trainer, and was one of the prominent members of Aiken’s winter Thoroughbred colony. Torrance Watkins rode for Iris and spent time in Aiken, where she schooled Iris’s famous horse Red’s Door. Torrance represented the U.S. in three world championships in the 1970s and 1980s and won team gold at the Los Angeles Olympics. Suzie Howard, a pioneering female event rider, horse show organizer and the owner of the great eventer Warrior was here too. She often brought her friend, Jane Holderness Roddam, a British eventer who won Badminton and Burghley and was on the gold medal-winning British team in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. In the 1980s, Jane gave clinics in Aiken at Michael Laughlin’s Mill Race Farm.

With the presence of all these people who were involved in horse trials, it was only a matter of time before the idea of holding some kind of eventing competition caught on. The first test in 1981 included dressage and show jumping, and the riders in it were generally people who participated in the hunt or in horse shows, rather than committed event riders.

“We got the idea to do something, and we had a fun committee,” says Joannah. “Tom Biddle was running polo then and was very helpful in letting us use the polo field, and it was a success.”

In the following years, Joannah got involved at the Ramblewood show ground, where she helped to organize dressage shows. In 1987, she started “Sporting Days in Aiken” with a one-day combined test at Ramblewood. Then, Marshall Lamb, whose Outaways Farm was adjacent to the show grounds, suggested that she build a cross country course on his property and have an event with all three phases at Ramblewood and Outaways. The next year, 1988, Aiken had its first three day horse trial, which was recognized by the American Horse Shows Association, the United States Dressage Federation and the United States Combined Training Association.

The Aiken Standard reported that more than 200 horses and riders took part in this first official three day event, which was a benefit for the U.S. Pony Club, the Aiken Pony Club and the Whiskey Road Foxhounds. Competitors came from “as far away as Colorado and Pennsylvania” according to the paper. The competition also included a mini-prix show jumping event with a $1,000 prize. The winner of that class was Lellie Ward.

Aiken Training

For Lellie Ward, who is probably Aiken’s first home-grown eventing professional, the sport is a natural fit for Aiken, but, in some ways it was a long time coming. Lellie grew up on Long Island and in Aiken, coming down for winters with her family. Her grandfather was F. Skiddy von Stade, a major player in the Aiken equestrian scene during the days of the Winter Colony and, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “one of the country’s best-known horsemen.” He was a polo player, a foxhunter, a steeplechase and flat race jockey, a member of the Jockey Club and a trustee of the Saratoga race course.

“He was very strict,” says Lellie, who remembers riding with him in the Hitchcock Woods. “He was an imposing figure and I was always in awe of him. But my growing up in horses and eventing was very influenced by him. For him, it was all about sportsmanship, and all about the horses and the training. People say that I’m strict, but that’s the way I was brought up. You didn’t fool around.”

Lellie Ward on Paddle, Rolex 1985
As a child, Lellie rode in the Woods in Aiken, hunting with the Aiken Hounds. When she was back on Long Island, she was involved in the Pony Club, which was focused exclusively on eventing. “I didn’t have a hunter jumper background,” she says. “I grew up hunting with the Meadowbrook Hounds, and I gravitated towards eventing because I liked galloping and I didn’t like the show ring.”

On Long Island, Lellie rode with Charlie Plumb, an event rider himself and the father of Michael Plumb, who has represented the United States in the Olympics nine times. In Aiken, she met Torrance Watkins through Iris Freeman, and became her working student. By the time she was entering her 20s, she was a serious event rider with international aspirations. But Aiken was not yet the best place to train.

“Even when I was little, whenever I went riding in Hitchcock Woods I was always eventing in my mind,” she says. The Woods were a great place to ride, but didn’t offer quite enough variety of jumping efforts to challenge an upper level horse. In the mid-80s, when Lellie had the horses and the experience to go Advanced, there were few places to school an event horse in town.

Building the barn at Paradise Farm, late 1990s
“When I did my first Rolex, which was in 1985, there were no cross-country courses around anywhere. My preparation for my first Rolex was taking all our show jumps, putting them in the manure wagon and driving them to what used to be called Sandy Hills Farm [now Jumping Branch.] We put the jumps on the side of the hill, and I would school over everything that we could construct with show jumps. That was my preparation for Rolex – that’s how different it was here.”

But Lellie’s Aiken connections did help her further her competitive goals. In addition to Iris Freeman and Torrance Watkins, she also met Jane Holderness Roddam. After Lellie rode in one of her clinics, Jane invited Lellie to continue her training in England, which she did. By the early 1990s, Lellie was competing in Britain and on the Continent, gaining exposure to some of the best eventers and course designers in the world.

On to Atlanta

The first true three-day in 1988 was a success by any measure, and Sporting Days in Aiken became a spring tradition. Then, when development pushed the horse shows out of Ramblewood, the Hopelands Horse Trials started. This event held its dressage and show jumping phases at McGhee’s Mile on Banks Mill Road, with the cross country phase at Hopelands, also on Banks Mill. Meanwhile, in 1989, Joannah Glass bought the property that is now Sporting Days Farm, and set about turning that farm into a dedicated eventing facility. She held her first event there in 1993. In 1995, the first recognized event came to Julie Zappapas’s Jumping Branch Farm. Eventing had established a firm foothold in Aiken.

The mid-1990s were important for Aiken’s eventing community. When Atlanta was granted the 1996 Olympics, people in town were eager to offer Aiken’s equestrian facilities to a team from overseas so that the athletes could train close to Atlanta and acclimate themselves to the hot and humid weather. Joannah, who lived near Phillip Dutton’s Pennsylvania training base during the summers, thought the Australian eventing team would be a natural fit. Dutton, at that time, was training in the U.S. but was a citizen of Australia and a top contender for their team.

“I said A is for Aiken, and also for Australia,” says Joannah. “And I told everyone who would listen that Australian team was going to win the gold medal.”

After lobbying by the Aiken Chamber of Commerce, and behind-the-scenes negotiations by city officials, Joannah and other private citizens in the horse world, the chef of the Australian team and a few other representatives flew to Aiken.

“We took them to the Green Boundary Club for lunch,” says Joannah. “And I can’t remember who sat around the table, but there were a bunch of us and the Australians loved it, and it worked beautifully.”

Early Paradise Farm cross country course
In August 1995, the Australians came to Aiken with their horses for a test event held at the Olympic Park in Conyers, Ga. In 1996, they took up residence in the historic horse district downtown, stabling at the old H&D barns and training at various locations around town. Their Aiken preparations were successful: they did indeed come home with the gold medal, and the city of Aiken rejoiced. “And the rest is history,” says Joannah.

Aiken Eventing

For Lellie Ward, the mid 1990s were a time of triumph and disappointment. In the months leading up to the 1996 Games, she was focused on earning a spot on America’s team. She had been living and training in England, and had the horses and the record to do it. Back in the U.S. and on the short list for the team, she came off on course during a selection trial in Virginia and hurt her knee so badly she wouldn’t be able to ride. She knew her Olympic dreams had been dashed. When she came out of the hospital, she approached Bruce Davidson, who, the year before, had become the first American to win Badminton and then won the individual gold and team silver at the Pam Am Games in Buenos Aires.

Paradise Farm water jump

“I said, whenever I ride this horse I fall off. What should I do? And he said, sell him to me. And I did, and I took that money and I bought Paradise Farm.”

Lellie had driven past the place many times, but hadn’t paid much attention to it, until she saw the back of the property, where she could appreciate the hill that is now the cross country course. After all her time in England, studying the fences and learning from the course designers there, her natural ability to read the land had been well-honed. “I looked in that field, and I said that is the cross-country course right there. The name Paradise Farm came from some friends of mine that took care of my horses on the Isle of Wight. They had Paradise Farm so I called them up and I asked them if they would mind if I called my farm after theirs.”

Lellie began building the course at Paradise in 1997. It was ready for its first event in September, 2001 – and this first horse trial was held shortly after the tragedy on 9/11. It was successful, nonetheless, with about 125 entries – Lellie remembers giving everyone American flag pins to wear. In later years, she moved her event to the spring, and then started having two events, one in the spring and one in the fall. A few years after Lellie’s first event, Lara Anderson began holding horse trials at Full Gallop Farm. By 2007, Aiken had four eventing facilities with recognized events: Sporting Days, Jumping Branch, Paradise and Full Gallop. Entries at all of these events grew every year, although often the organizers capped them at 300. Other facilities followed with their own schooling courses – Chime Bell Chase, Sandy Hills Farm, Apple Tree Farm and so on.

Meanwhile, the USEF started using Aiken as the site for its winter training sessions for High Performance riders. Phillip Dutton came down to Aiken every winter, bringing a growing entourage of students, including Boyd Martin. In 2007, he bought Red Oak Farm at Bridle Creek Equestrian, where he set up a training facility that was ready for the 2008 winter season. Aiken’s reputation spread in all directions, attracting active professionals: Denis Glaccum, Sally Cousins, Jan Byyny, Heidi White, Kim Severson, Craig Thompson . . . the list goes on. All of these people brought students, and many of these students, like their teachers, end up buying land in Aiken. Like so many horse people who have gravitated to Aiken over the last century, event riders who come here feel like they have come home.

Eventing Today

“I kept thinking, with the recession, entries would go down,” says Joannah. “But it hasn’t happened. We broke a record last year, with some amazing number of entries – over 400.”

For Joannah, who holds recognized events as well as weekly schooling shows during the February through March seasons, the joy in organizing these competitions comes from being able to share her farm, as well as everything that Aiken has to offer, with her fellow horsemen.

“I like that, in Aiken, there is such a diversity of events, and lots of different places for people to compete,” she says, explaining Aiken’s popularity. “I think Aiken is the most wonderful town I’ve ever known. I am privileged to have found it and been allowed to enjoy it. You have everything here you could ever ask for at your finger tips, and yet you are in this beautiful rural community.”

Lellie and Joannah are in agreement that the growth in Aiken needs to be balanced with preservation, that resources such as the Hitchcock Woods need to be preserved, and that expansion in the eventing and horse communities should be in keeping with Aiken’s old traditions of respect for the land and for the horse.

“The horse industry here has changed so much,” says Lellie. “I am not surprised at all that the eventers have found Aiken. They have come here and they have found a good thing. Aiken is a good thing. They come here because of the footing, and the weather and the events. But people move so fast now, and with such an agenda, that they don’t always have time to appreciate what we have here. I love old Aiken, with its sense of history and its traditions of horsemanship and sportsmanship. I hope that, in the future, people – not just eventers, but everybody – will continue to value Aiken for what it was, as well as for what it is now. History is important.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.